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Paper No. 221                             03.04.2001

by B.Raman

The following is the text of the report carried by the "People's Daily" of Beijing on April 2,2001, on the incident involving an EP-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft of the US National Security Agency (NSA), flying under the cover of the US Navy, and a Chinese aircraft over the South China Sea on April 1, 2001:

"A US military surveillance plane bumped into and damaged a Chinese military jet over the South China Sea Sunday, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

"Sunday morning, a US military surveillance plane approached China's air space south-east of China's island province of Hainan, and two Chinese military jets scrambled to track it, said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhu Bangzao.  At 9:07 a.m., 104 km south-east of Hainan Island, the US plane suddenly turned towards the Chinese jets, resulting in its bumping into and damaging one of the two Chinese jets, said Zhu.

"The Chinese side is very much concerned about the missing Chinese pilot from the crashed jet, and is busily searching for his whereabouts, Zhu said.

"Without permission from the Chinese side, the US surveillance plane intruded into China's air space and made an emergency landing at Lingshui Airport in Hainan at 9:33 a.m., according to the spokesman.  It was normal and in accordance with international practice for Chinese military jets to track the U.S. surveillance plane over China's water areas, Zhu said.  The direct cause of the damage and crash of the Chinese jet was that the U.S. plane suddenly veered into the Chinese jet, which was against flight rule. Therefore, the U.S. side should bear all the responsibility arising there from, Zhu said.

"The Chinese side has made solemn representations and protested to the U.S. side, and China reserves its right to further negotiate with the U.S. side on the losses resulted in the incident, he said.  China has so far made proper arrangements for all the 24 crew members on board the U.S. plane, Zhu said, adding that China also reserves the right to further negotiate with the U.S. side on the U.S. plane's intrusion into China's air space and landing at the Chinese airport without permission, Zhu said. "

The reports available so far are sketchy and it would, therefore, be premature to come to any definitive conclusions, but some tentative observations could be made:

* It was not a deliberate act of provocation by either side.  This was not the first time that US NSA planes based in Okinawa had undertaken spy-in-the-sky missions in this area and this was not the first time that Chinese planes had trailed them, but the pilot of the NSA plane seemed to have lost his cool on seeing the Chinese aircraft and embarked on a manoeuvre, which resulted in the avoidable collision.

* The collision would appear to have taken place over waters of the South China Sea, which China considers as its territorial waters, but which have not been so recognised by the international community in view of China's pending territorial dispute with certain ASEAN countries in this matter.  It did not take place in Chinese air space as recognised by the international community.  However, after the collision, the pilot of the damaged NSA plane had no other alternative but to fly into Chinese air space and land in Hainan since he could not have taken the damaged plane either back to Okinawa or to any other airport.

* While the Chinese authorities have allowed US consular officials and Military Attache to proceed to Hainan, they have not so far allowed any meeting with the NSA experts and military officials travelling in the aircraft.  There are no indications so far that Chinese military authorities boarded the NSA plane to inspect the equipment and seize the records, but this cannot be ruled out.


The Chinese authorities have so far handled the incident with restraint and seem to be anxious to avoid the kind of mob hysteria witnessed after the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy building in Belgrade in 1999.  A few hours after the US plane landed in Hainan, instructions went out from Beijing to the Chinese media and portals to throw open their chat rooms and bulletin boards to enable Chinese citizens express their feelings over the incident.  This appears to be an intelligent move to encourage Chinese citizens let out steam against the US in cyber space rather than in the streets of Beijing as had happened in 1999.

The Chinese print media has also been carrying sanitised extracts from the chat rooms and internet bulletin boards.  Examples:

"The American government always attaches importance to human rights.  Now why didn’t it show any human rights concern to the poor missing pilot?"

"The so-called international practice is nothing when they bombed other’s embassy or when they collided other’s plane in another country.  When it concerns their interests, they would clamor 'international practice'.  What a robber’s logic!"

"The US keeps claiming its spy plane was on a routine surveillance or exercise in southeast of Hainan Islands.  Would that be legitimate just because a thief has been stealing others’ property for enough 'working experience'? How can you intrude into other’s home without permission and claim yourself innocent?"

"I am sure the Chinese government will never and ever maltreat the crew.  The problem is whether they are some honored guests upon invitation or some notorious thief stealing our 'property'.  According to international law, intelligence agencies are not equal to prisoner of war.  Should we spend the tax-payers’ money to serve them cigarette, alcohol or other luxuries, based on the US demands?"

"It is understandable why the US wants no board on the plane because there are lots of top-secret electronic equipment, which might even contain some information concerning US national security or concerning China’s national security just gained thought this ‘routine surveillance’.  I am not commenting on what the Chinese government should do. I just want an answer: Can a thief, under arrest at the scene of a crime, demand no search in an aboveboard manner because all his clothes, luggage are his personal belongings under his own territorial scope?"

"We can understand US’s worry about its advance electronic plane.  And we are not going to search the plane by ourselves because the plane is concerning US’s national secrets.  But due to the plane had ‘routine surveillance’ inside China territory, we doubt the plane may carry information directly relating to China’s national security.  A special team should be selected from permanent members of the Security Council and other UN member countries, including China and US personnel, to work into the case."

"Someone once predicted the next military target of US would be China after Yugoslavia’s failure, and now it becomes a reality.  China might face more such challenges or insults if it failed to strengthen itself."

Provided the US avoids unnecessary rhetoric, which could be interpreted by the Chinese as provocation, and deals with the situation with tact, the military accident is unlikely to escalate.  All that the Chinese would, most probably, be interested in is an expression of regret by the US and adequate compensation for the loss of their plane and pilot. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: